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In everyday usage, a vegetable is any part of a plant that is consumed by humans as food as part of a savory meal. The term vegetable is somewhat arbitrary, and largely defined through culinary and cultural tradition. It normally excludes other food derived from plants such as fruits, nuts and cereal grains, but includes seeds such as pulses. The original meaning of the word vegetable, still used in biology, was to describe all types of plant, as in the terms ,,vegetable kingdom" and ,,vegetable matter".
Originally, vegetables were collected from the wild by hunter-gatherers and entered cultivation in several parts of the world, probably during the period 10,000 BC to 7,000 BC, when a new agricultural way of life developed. At first, plants which grew locally would have been cultivated, but as time went on, trade brought exotic crops from elsewhere to add to domestic types. Nowadays, most vegetables are grown all over the world as climate permits, and crops may be cultivated in protected environments in less suitable locations. China is the largest producer of vegetables, and global trade in agricultural products allows consumers to purchase vegetables grown in faraway countries. The scale of production varies from subsistence farmers supplying the needs of their family for food, to agribusinesses with vast acreages of single-product crops. Depending on the type of vegetable concerned, harvesting the crop is followed by grading, storing, processing and marketing.
Vegetables can be eaten either raw or cooked and play an important role in human nutrition, being mostly low in fat and carbohydrates, but high in vitamins, minerals and fiber. Many governments encourage their citizens to consume plenty of fruit and vegetables, five or more portions a day often being recommended.
The word vegetable was first recorded in English in the early 15th century. It comes from Old French, and was originally applied to all plants; the word is still used in this sense in biological contexts. It derives from Medieval Latin vegetabilis ,,growing, flourishing" (i.e. of a plant), a semantic change from a Late Latin meaning ,,to be enlivening, quickening".
The meaning of ,,vegetable" as a "plant grown for food" was not established until the 18th century. In 1767, the word was specifically used to mean a ,,plant cultivated for food, an edible herb or root". The year 1955 noted the first use of the shortened, slang term ,,veggie".
As an adjective, the word vegetable is used in scientific and technical contexts with a different and much broader meaning, namely of ,,related to plants" in general, edible or not - as in vegetable matter, vegetable kingdom, vegetable origin, etc.
The exact definition of ,,vegetable" may vary simply because of the many parts of a plant consumed as food worldwide – roots, tubers, bulbs, corms, stems, leaf stems, leaf sheaths, leaves, buds, flowers, fruits and seeds. The broadest definition is the word's use adjectivally to mean "matter of plant origin" to distinguish it from "animal", meaning "matter of animal origin". More specifically, a vegetable may be defined as ,,any plant, part of which is used for food", a secondary meaning then being ,,the edible part of such a plant". A more precise definition is ,,any plant part consumed for food that is not a fruit or seed, but including mature fruits that are eaten as part of a main meal". Falling outside these definitions are mushrooms and other edible fungi, as well as edible seaweed which, although not parts of green plants, are often treated as vegetables.
In everyday language, the words ,,fruit" and ,,vegetable" are mutually exclusive. ,,Fruit" has a precise botanical meaning, being a part that developed from the ovary of a flowering plant. This is considerably different from the word's culinary meaning. While peaches, plums, and oranges are ,,fruit" in both senses, many items commonly called ,,vegetables", such as eggplants, bell peppers and tomatoes, are botanically fruits. The question of whether the tomato is a fruit or a vegetable found its way into the United States Supreme Court in 1893. The court ruled unanimously in Nix v. Hedden that a tomato is correctly identified as, and thus taxed as, a vegetable, for the purposes of the Tariff of 1883 on imported produce. The court did acknowledge, however, that, botanically speaking, a tomato is a fruit.
Before the advent of agriculture, humans were hunter-gatherers. They foraged for edible fruit, nuts, stems, leaves, corms and tubers, scavenged for dead animals and hunted living ones for food. Forest gardening in a tropical jungle clearing is thought to be the first example of agriculture; useful plant species were identified and encouraged to grow while undesirable species were removed. Plant breeding through the selection of strains with desirable traits such as large fruit and vigorous growth soon followed. While the first evidence for the domestication of grasses such as wheat and barley has been found in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, it is likely that various peoples around the world started growing crops in the period 10,000 BC to 7,000 BC. Subsistence agriculture continues to this day, with many rural farmers in Africa, Asia, South America and elsewhere using their plots of land to produce enough food for their families, while any surplus produce is used for exchange for other goods.
Throughout recorded history, the rich have been able to afford a varied diet including meat, vegetables and fruit, but for poor people, meat was a luxury and the food they ate was very dull, typically comprising mainly some staple product made from rice, rye, barley, wheat, millet or maize. The addition of vegetable matter provided some variety to the diet. The staple diet of the Aztecs in Central America was maize and they cultivated tomatoes, avocados, beans, peppers, pumpkins, squashes, peanuts and amaranth seeds to supplement their tortillas and porridge. In Peru, the Incas subsisted on maize in the lowlands and potatoes at higher altitudes. They also used seeds from quinoa, supplementing their diet with peppers, tomatoes and avocados.
In Ancient China, rice was the staple crop in the south and wheat in the north, the latter made into dumplings, noodles and pancakes. Vegetables used to accompany these included yams, soya beans, broad beans, turnips, spring onions and garlic. The diet of the ancient Egyptians was based on bread, often contaminated with sand which wore away their teeth. Meat was a luxury but fish was more plentiful. These were accompanied by a range of vegetables including marrows, broad beans, lentils, onions, leeks, garlic, radishes and lettuces.
The mainstay of the Ancient Greek diet was bread, and this was accompanied by goat's cheese, olives, figs, fish and occasionally meat. The vegetables grown included onions, garlic, cabbages, melons and lentils. In Ancient Rome a thick porridge was made of emmer wheat or beans, accompanied by green vegetables but little meat, and fish was not esteemed. The Romans grew broad beans, peas, onions and turnips and ate the leaves of beets rather than their roots.
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